Why is a Raven like a Writing Desk? Preston Manor’s 2019 Riddle Trail

During the summer season 2019 families visiting Preston Manor were challenged by a specially created Riddle Trail.

The trail took them on a journey around the house encountering Victorian brain-teasers, puns and puzzles on the way.

Paula Wrightson, Venue Officer Preston Manor in the Drawing Room at Preston Manor

Arguably the most famous riddle of the Victorian age was that posed by the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

“Mad Hatter: “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”
“Have you guessed the riddle yet?” the Hatter said, turning to Alice again
“No, I give it up,” Alice replied: “What’s the answer?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter”

When I created the Riddle Trail Alice was my inspiration, as were two real-life Victorian girls, twins Diana and Lily Macdonald who were born in 1866 and grew up at Preston Manor. Without doubt Diana and Lily read Alice in their childhoods and puzzled over Lewis Carroll’s un-answerable raven riddle, as people still puzzle today.

Diana and Lily Macdonald

Since Preston Manor contains a number of Victorian writing desks and The Booth Museum of Natural History was able to provide me with a taxidermy raven I thought what better fun than pose the raven riddle to our summer visitors leaving pencil and paper handy.

The Riddle Trail has now ended, so here are the results from the brave few who attempted an answer:

Why is a raven like a writing desk?

“Because it can produce a very few notes though they are very flat” wrote Destiny.

Pam had a similar idea, “because it can produce a few notes”

“Kept on a writing desk as a sign of good luck” Jasmine offered.

“They both have the letter R in them” an unnamed person suggests.

“They are the two loves of my young fragile life” declares another, poetically

“HE IS NOT” writes a child employing faultless logic

Lewis Carroll’s answer

In his preface to the 1896 edition of Alice in Wonderland Carroll feels he must answer:

“Enquiries have so often been addressed to me, as to whether any answers to the Hatter’s riddle can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to be a fairly appropriate answer, viz: “Because it can produce a few notes, though they are very flat; and it is never put with the wrong end in front!’ This, however, is merely an afterthought; the Riddle, as originally invented, had no answer at all.”

My answer?

In relation to the raven and writing desk at Preston Manor: “one is preserved by stuffing the other is stuff worth preserving”

Looking to 2020

Preston Manor’s 2019 Riddle Trail proved popular with families who responded by saying how much children and adults enjoyed the hands-on activities, dressing up and doing something unexpectedly thought-provoking in a historic house.

Inspired, we are already planning a trail for summer season 2020. There will be a new theme and new activities with the trail running daily during normal opening hours free with entry tickets.

Preston Manor summer season begins on Wednesday 1 April, for more information see the Visiting page.

Paula Wrightson, Venue Officer Preston Manor

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